Proposal to cut Hampden center could move 120 jobs to southern Maine

SCARBOROUGH — Just two months after absorbing work previously handled in Portsmouth, N.H., the U.S. Postal Service processing center here may be adding work now performed in Hampden.

USPS says it could save $7.5 million by closing the Eastern Maine Processing & Distribution Center and shifting its work to the facility on Postal Service Way.

If the plan goes through, the Scarborough mail hub would be the only one in the state. It would mean more employees and better job security in Scarborough.

But a postal workers union representative said it would be a Pyyrhic victory.

“It’s true that in the short term, we stand to gain 120 jobs, which would be great for our local and the southern Maine facility,” said Tim Doughty, president of American Postal Workers Union Local 458. “Long-term though, these changes could have a negative impact on us, too.”

The consolidation effort is part of a two-pronged attack by the postal service on its growing budget gap. The other part of the plan would change the one- to three-day standard of delivery for first-class mail to a two- to three-day standard, effectively ending overnight delivery.

Doughty, a 33-year USPS employee, said he fears the precedent of changing the delivery standard. If a three-day wait on first-class mail is OK, he asked, why not have just one hub for all of New England?

“Why couldn’t they just have one plant, in Springfield, Mass.?” he said. “Closing Eastern Maine is one step, and you can say it only affects (Aroostook) County and Down East, but what happens when they close us? That would kill the overnight delivery standard in Portland, too.”

Competition from email and private carriers has meant billions of dollars in revenue shortfalls for the USPS.

According to postal service figures, 98 billion pieces of first-class mail were sent via USPS in 2006. Volume dropped to 78 billion in 2010, and is expected to shrink to 39 billion by the end of this decade.

Consolidating mail processing facilities and adding a day to the delivery standard would help, USPS spokesman Tom Rizzo said.

“There’s no reason to expect that we could not manage to deliver mail all throughout the state at a high level of service,” Rizzo said.

The Southern Maine P&DC employs 529 people. It gained 39 workers last November when it took half the workload previously handled in Portsmouth, N.H.

Though consolidation could result in 42 layoffs in Hampden, moving all Maine processing to southern Maine could mean 120 more jobs in Scarborough. The Southern Maine P&DC could also see an increase in operation time, to 20 hours per day. That means less idle time, Rizzo said.

Doughty, the union president, said that while he doesn’t have any doubt that his facility could handle the extra work, the solution for Postal Service woes should come from Congress.

In 2006, Congress voted to require the Postal Service to fund 75 years worth of future retirement costs for its employees. Doughty said the USPS sends Congress about $5 billion per year on the promise the money will be available for retirement in the future. The USPS doesn’t receive any taxpayer money, so that $5 billion comes from the declining revenue stream of postage.

The postal service can’t afford it, Doughty said.

“Congress is using the postal service as a cash cow,” he said. “Prefunding for 75 years means paying for people who aren’t even born yet, let alone working for the Postal Service.”

Doughty said Congress should repeal that rule before forcing the Postal Service to look toward consolidation and layoffs.

He and his union aren’t the only ones concerned about the plan to shut the Eastern Maine P&DC.

Republican U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine have both come out against consolidation.

“I am still not persuaded that this proposal will achieve the $7.6 million in savings the agency claims,” Snowe said in a statement. “Rather, I am convinced it would disproportionately slow down mail delivery to rural areas of Maine.”

Collins said the plan would hurt small Maine businesses, which rely on first-class mail every day.

The consolidation plan “would likely force businesses ranging from home delivery of medicines to newspapers to turn to other, non-postal delivery options,” she said in remarks prepared for a USPS public hearing on the consolidation last week in Brewer.

“Once these private firms leave the mail system, they won’t be coming back, and the Postal Service’s revenues will suffer yet another blow from which it might not recover,” Collins said.

Rizzo said the move to one mail hub is not unprecedented, and questioned critics who said citizens would have to wait a long time for delivery.

Until the mid 990s, Maine had only one P&DC, and it was in southern Maine. Rizzo said the mail was delivered then and it would still be delivered if the proposed consolidation is adopted.

“Everything was processed and delivered on time and since that time,” he said, “mail processing technology has only advanced.”

The deadline for comments on the consolidation proposal is Jan. 26. Action on the proposal isn’t expected before mid-May.

Mario Moretto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @riocarmine.

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